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Hearth & Home August 2016

As the sun sets over LA, this rooftop Outdoor Room becomes an oasis of relaxation, with a grill at the far right, dining table, deep seating, a linear gas fireplace and, of course, Judy Garland.

What's In Outside?

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Experts weigh in on the Outdoor Room® trend as it continues to grow, evolve and become an integral part of the North American lifestyle.

When custom-builder David D’Agostino meets with new clients these days, he often hears the same request: We want an Outdoor Room.

“We’ve even had customers tell us, ‘We would settle for a house half the size, but what we really want is a comfortable outdoor living space,’” he says. The president of D’Agostino Builders, an award-winning, Philadelphia-area developer of luxury single-family homes, multi-family residences, and multi-use retail/residential properties, says, “People are putting more emphasis on outdoor living, and they want to create a resort-style area for relaxing and entertaining at home.”

One of his current projects is a custom home with an expansive outdoor living space, including an island kitchen with built-in grill, sideburner and refrigerator, and an in-ground fire pit gathering area. He also regularly gets calls from previous clients who want to add an outdoor living area to the homes he built for them a few years prior. And, he is even considering adding a common courtyard with a built-in grill and other outdoor living features in a residential apartment project on which he’s working.

Chief on the list of his clients’ outdoor priorities: a covered patio, deck or porch. “We do a pergola now and then,” says D’Agostino, “but lately, people really prefer the idea of walking out of the house and right into a sheltered living area. When there is a solid roof overhead, the Outdoor Room is always ready to use because you eliminate the hassle of taking patio furniture cushions and decorative items in and out so they don’t get wet or dirty. The space becomes a seamless extension of the house.”

The Toll Brothers company has embraced the Outdoor Room, and now offers a wide variety of options for outdoor living.
Photo Courtesy: ©2016 Toll Brothers.

Even when a customer’s budget doesn’t permit completion of the entire outdoor upgrade at the time of the initial construction, he says, the homeowner will usually include the covered structure and later add the outdoor kitchen, fire pit or fireplace, and other items on the wish list.

D’Agostino’s experience is reflective of a trend throughout the U.S. and Canada in which Outdoor Rooms are gaining equal footing with indoor living spaces. According to Construction Dive, a daily online newsletter for the construction industry, outdoor space was one of the most “buzzed-about” topics during the 2016 International Builders Show, with Outdoor Rooms considered equally important as interior spaces, even in colder climates.

According to the report, “People value being outside, and in a number of places (builders) were making slightly smaller homes because the outdoor space is much more prominent.”

According to the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2016 Home Design Trends Survey, outdoor living continues to be one of the top trends in home design, with 69 percent of firms saying they’re designing more “outdoor living spaces,” and 61 percent designing more “blended indoor/outdoor spaces.”

AIA chief economist Kermit Baker, PhD, says, “While initially decks, patios and outdoor grills were the focus, this trend has expanded to outdoor kitchens and even fully-furnished Outdoor Rooms.” AIA reports that the desire for outdoor living is an extension of consumers’ increasingly informal lifestyles, preference for open floor plans indoors, and emphasis on the kitchen as the hub of the home for both everyday living and entertaining.

A flat roof and master bedroom suite in San Francisco was transformed into this dramatic deck with kitchen, dining and living areas. The flooring is heavy ceramic tile pavers interspersed with walkable in-floor skylights on the main deck, with ipe wood floors at the upper deck and stairs.
Photo Courtesy: ©2016 Ohashi Design Studio. Photographer: Paul Dyer Photography.

Many of today’s outdoor living spaces are outfitted with high-end amenities such as full kitchens with gas grills, charcoal grills, pizza ovens and other appliances; custom fire pits or fireplaces; premium furniture; luxury pools, spas and recreation elements; televisions and more.

While these features could hardly be called “standard,” an outdoor living space is definitely becoming a standard feature in homes. In a National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) ranking of the most-wanted home features, a “patio” came in near the top, desired by 84 percent of consumer respondents who rated it “essential” or “desirable.”

A study by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) reveals how many homeowners are outfitting those patios: with an outdoor kitchen. According to the trade group, the “number of inquiries” and “requests for bids” are both up slightly overall among remodelers this year, with outdoor kitchens being one of the fastest-growing areas of inquiry.

Outdoor Kitchens: They’re Not Just for Dinner

Indeed, outdoor kitchens are the cornerstone of an Outdoor Room, and more people are using them to handle the lion’s share of cooking – including lunch, snacks and even breakfast – during nice weather. That means they’re interested in incorporating a greater variety of appliances and grilling accessories in the outdoor cooking space.

“People are trying to attain a fully functional outdoor kitchen with areas for cooking, prepping, plating, serving beverages, and cold and dry storage,” says Dale Seiden, co-founder, vice president Sales and Marketing, and lead outdoor kitchen designer for Alfresco. “Unfortunately, most consumers think more about the finishes in an outdoor kitchen than the flow and design,” he says.

“That’s where the dealer comes in. Just like in an indoor kitchen or commercial kitchen, the design should be about ergonomics, geometry and flow. When a dealer can offer design services, it actually increases the number of appliances and components the customer ultimately purchases for their outdoor kitchen.”

Not One-Size-Fits-All

Another compelling reason to get into the Outdoor Room business: A Yahoo! Finance report predicts the outdoor living market will top $5.7 billion in 2016. But it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all trend. An “Outdoor Room” is interpreted differently depending on age and income, and will continue to be impacted by changing housing and societal trends.

On the plus side, Harvard Research Center’s State of the Nation’s Housing 2016 report shows sales, prices, and new construction of single-family homes are finally on the rise again, as is household income. The study indicates, “The national housing market has now regained enough momentum to provide an engine of growth for the U.S. economy.” That’s very good news for an industry closely linked to the housing market.

A large and high roof jutting from the house creates a spacious Outdoor Room. Note the lights, skylights, patio heaters and fans. The outdoor kitchen is by Galaxy Outdoor.

There’s more good news from the National Association of Realtors, which reports existing single-family home sales rose three straight months through May, up 4.7 percent over last year. The gains have been highest in the Northeast, South and West (the Midwest declined 6.2 percent), and mostly from previous homeowners wanting to trade up or downsize.

But the reality is, according to the Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancies and Homeownership Survey, overall, U.S. homeownership has been declining steadily since 2004. Last year was no exception: 2015 homeownership levels declined in every age bracket from age 25 on up. The situation is especially bleak among first-time, Millennial-age, home buyers whose crushing student loan debt and lack of financial independence has prevented them from getting into the housing market and postponed the formation of millions of new U.S. households. According to the NAHB, 15 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds, or about 6.5 million people, now live with their parents.

What people are looking for in a home is changing as well. A report in Icon, the journal of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), says that many Americans are “downsizing, reducing their consumption of consumer goods, and opting for a simpler, less material-laden lifestyle.”

The report indicates that some people are looking to get more for their money in smaller homes with good design and improved functionality to better serve changing lifestyles. They are looking for quality over quantity, and doing “more with less.”

A report by AIA echoes these findings, indicating that as population growth slows, the housing focus is changing from a decades-long emphasis on building new homes to improving existing ones. In fact, according to the report, in the next 10 years, 60 percent of residential housing investment will be spent on improving the existing housing stock, flipping the previous ratio that favored new construction.

The Moderno home by The Sater Group is a beautiful blend of contemporary styling and elegant outdoor living. Its open, flowing spaces allow the owners to entertain large or small groups, or to create intimacy for its owners.
Photo Courtesy: ©2016 Sater Group.


Fortunately, the desire for an outdoor living space remains high, particularly among Millennials who, as a group, are the biggest fans of the Outdoor Room concept. The You and Your Home survey from Better Homes and Gardens magazine, shows 73 percent of respondents under age 35 believe an outdoor space is important for entertaining (versus 59 percent of those age 35 to 55, and 46 percent over age 55). About half of Millennial-age homeowners currently have some type of fire pit, 25 percent have an outdoor sound system, and 22 percent use a television outdoors, considerably higher than for those over age 35, with ownership at 19 percent, 13 percent and six percent respectively.

Millennials are also more likely to “dream of having” an outdoor kitchen with sink, cooktop, refrigerator and grill (51 percent, versus 37 percent for ages 35 to 55, and 25 percent over age 55). Fifty-three percent of Millennials want to decorate their alfresco living spaces with outdoor lamps, party lights and landscape lighting. But perhaps indicative of their financial situation, Millennials are also more likely to report that exterior makeovers are “expensive and not worth the investment” (33 percent compared to 51 percent over age 55).

The challenge to the outdoor living industry is how to make the dream of an Outdoor Room attainable to a huge demographic of consumers who may be on tighter budgets, or renting, sharing living space, or living in smaller or nontraditional homes. That might translate to small-footprint prefab islands, add-on modular cooking and beverage stations, or even a coordinated collection of freestanding grills and mobile serving/prep/beverage carts so consumers can create a flexible Outdoor Room that works in a tight space, or can be taken with them if they move from their apartment, condo or starter home.

A number of manufacturers are already rising to the task, expanding offerings and price points to meet the needs of this growing new market for outdoor kitchens and other outdoor living amenities.

One is Coyote Outdoor Living.

“An Outdoor Room is aspirational for almost everyone, no matter the size of their home or their income,” according to company founder and president Jim Ginocchi. “Many people see Jamie Durie’s $100,000 backyard on HGTV and want it, but they can’t afford it,” he says. “We turn that inspiration into reality by offering outdoor kitchens at affordable, entry-level price points. People can have an outdoor kitchen without spending a huge amount of money.”

Saber launched its EZ Outdoor Kitchens, an all-inclusive, entry-priced, seven-ft. finished outdoor grilling island that assembles in 45 minutes and, depending on the series, comes with a built-in grill, sideburner, drop-in ice chest or refrigerator, and storage.

Bull Outdoor Products offers outdoor kitchens with a built-in grill, refrigerator, sink, access door, GFCI outlet, and customizable base and counter for under $5,000.

Napoleon’s value-priced Oasis Modular Island Kits can be DIY configured in numerous ways, starting with just a few modular pieces to create a small outdoor kitchen that eventually could be expanded with additional modular units.

Summerset Outdoor Kitchens offers four customizable grilling islands, available finished or unfinished, and designed for small spaces and entry-level budgets.

Twin Eagles designed its new entry-level Delsol line to extend the opportunity for an Outdoor Room to a much broader demographic than the company’s premium Twin Eagles line might allow.

Other Outdoor Living Design Trends

While value-priced, small-footprint outdoor kitchens are a growing trend in outdoor living, there are a number of other trends emerging in the Outdoor Room. Here’s a look at some of them:

Rooms Within a Room – The NAHB says designers are defining the overall outdoor living space into smaller rooms, or intimate spaces, such as cozy courtyards, inviting reading or relaxation nooks, and fire pit chat areas.

Indoor-Outdoor Fusion – Sliding glass walls, stackable doors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and new flooring options are being used to create a sense of fluidity and seamless flow between indoor and outdoor living spaces.

According to Professional Builder magazine, an especially popular trend is the “disappearing outside corner,” in which the perpendicular walls at the corner of a room are designed with abutting glass panels, so the corner intersection can be fully opened and the room flows into the adjacent outdoor space. In addition, casual furniture, outdoor fabrics and rugs are barely distinguishable from indoor versions and are increasingly being used in both realms.

Here’s another view of our cover image: This open air pavilion in Texas’ Hill Country provides shade from the hot sun and includes a full kitchen, screened bath, dining space and storage area.
Photo Courtesy: ©2016 Lake|Flato Architects. Photographer: Casey Dunn.

Creature Comforts – According to the ASLA, outdoor hearths continue to be the top-requested outdoor design element, with outdoor lighting and wireless/internet connectivity in the second and third spots. Grilling areas, counter space, outdoor heaters, storage, sinks and refrigerators round out the ASLA’s top 15 most-requested outdoor design elements. Experts say porches, pavilions and other structures with solid roofs also are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the Northeast.

Two Islands Are Better Than One – Dividing work stations into two separate islands – one “hot” for cooking; one “cold” for cocktails and storage – is becoming more common, according to Seiden of Alfresco. These cold stations with sinks, refrigerators, kegerators, and bar-height seating are popular gathering hubs on the patio.

Sustainability – Landscape architects and designers say consumers want low-impact landscapes featuring drought-tolerant plants, permeable hardscapes to reduce runoff, less turf-grass lawn areas, and slow-growth shrubbery that requires infrequent trimming.

In fact, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), seven of the top 10 most popular landscape projects (including rainwater/graywater harvesting, permeable paving, and rain gardens) pertain to sustainability and conserving water. A survey by the NAHB shows three of the top six most wanted features in a home – energy-efficient appliances and windows, and an Energy Star home rating – had to do with conserving energy.

Sustainability Part 2 – Homeowners also say they are interested in the social and environmental impact of their purchases, preferring products made from organic, reclaimed, recycled, and/or repurposed materials, with low or no volatile organic compounds, and made under humane conditions, according to the ASID. Millennial consumers are particularly interested in a product’s “origin story” – where it came from, who made it and how.

Low-Maintenance – Chronically time-pressed consumers want to enjoy their outdoor spaces, not maintain them. As such, they are driving the demand for low-maintenance landscaping, composite decking, and easy-to-maintain Outdoor Rooms. An ASLA survey showed low-maintenance landscaping ranked fourth in a list of most popular outdoor projects.

Gaze at this Outdoor Room and you’ll find seating everywhere – next to the fireplace, on boulders around the fire pit, up on the deck, under the gazebo – it’s a (large) family affair.
Photo Courtesy: ©2016 Paradise Restored Landscaping.

Universal Design – With Baby Boomers moving into their senior years, universal design and accessibility is growing in importance in outdoor living design, according to the AIA’s Home Design Trends Survey. That might mean choosing ADA-accessible grills, appliances and cabinetry; being aware of the weight of the grill hood; choosing drawer-style versions of the dishwasher, icemaker, refrigerator, and storage units that don’t require bending and lifting; and designing pathways and flow so those with limited mobility can access the outdoor space.

“Waterfall” Islands – are becoming a new and contemporary look for indoor and outdoor kitchens. The countertop material appears to “fall” over the edge on the island’s two short sides, extending to the floor in solid panels, (as opposed to a traditional countertop with overhangs on all four sides).

Electrical Outlets – According to a NARI report, consumers are requesting a greater number of electrical outlets in their Outdoor Rooms to be able to use small countertop appliances such as blenders and juicers, as well as electronic equipment.

Farm-Friendly – According to the ASLA’s Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey, 75 percent of landscape architects report herbs, vegetable plants, fruit trees and vineyards are “in high demand” by clients. A survey by Better Homes and Gardens shows 39 percent of Millennials and 21 percent of those 35-and-up, desire edible landscaping.

Besides offering the shortest possible farm-to-table distance, consumers say sharing the produce with neighbors builds a sense of community. Chicken coops and bee hives are also becoming more common in suburban backyards.

Vertical Gardens – Green walls, living walls or vertical gardens: Whatever you call them, these upright gardens for ornamental and edible plantings bring nature into an Outdoor Room, and are a low-maintenance way to garden in a small footprint. According to Seiden, “We are designing and installing living walls with herbs and edible plants right next to outdoor kitchen prep areas. People love them.”

Water Works – From simple urns and portable fountains, to elaborate water-walls, water is increasingly being incorporated into Outdoor Rooms to add beauty, serenity and practicality (it’s an easy and soothing way to drown out street sounds!). The latest water incarnation, according to the NAHB: outdoor tables or islands with water troughs running through the center and down the side.

Prefab Garden Sheds – Used as artist’s studios, “she-shed” retreats, home offices, or screened dining pavilions, prefabricated garden sheds are a clever, low-cost way to add a structure to an Outdoor Room.

Swim-up Kitchens – Inspired by the swim-up bars at vacation resorts, homeowners are requesting swim-up outdoor kitchens adjacent to backyard pools. “They’re becoming very popular,” says Seiden.

Mobile Bar Carts – A trendy item in indoor living rooms last year, refreshment carts are rolling out to the patio this year. They are a fun and inexpensive alternative to built-in bar islands, and younger generations like them for their flexibility.

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